Made Himself into Millions: Robert K. Ritner (1953-2021)

Robert Ritner

Robert Ritner has passed away. This is a devastating loss. I wanted to put some of my thoughts down here as I’m in the early stages of grapping with what this means. I do not really feel worthy to reflect in any kind of authoritative way on him, but can only offer humbly my own experiences and feelings.

My scholarly life—such as it is—exists in an uneasy balance between two disciplines, Egyptology and Hebrew Bible, which I am navigating in my dissertation, haltingly, and it is because of Robert Ritner’s encouragement and confidence in me that I transitioned to the “and.” He made it happen. I feel like I expressed my gratitude enough to him, but I will always have regrets: he won’t be able to see the first fruit of my scholarship, and I won’t be able to repay his confidence and kindness, and offer the sincerest expression of gratitude from a vantage point of having completed something.

What will last is his scholarship, and, for me, his strongly voiced, at times imposing, technical but never dry, yet clear, even stark, and eminently understandable writing. The sentences give voice (and will keep giving voice to them, and to him) to a certain kind of insight and understanding that I want to reflect on a moment, because it is hard for me to explain exactly what it is. Ideas that take significant discipline and work to work up to and articulate, which are simple but far-reaching (even Copernican) in their implications, gather into their ambit something of considerable extent and import but connect to readings, re-readings (and criticisms), in all the right places for maximum rhetorical and argumentative impact. I think his best work was like this. His teaching style, whether in the museum gallery, in front of a primary source, or in the glow of a brilliantly assembled slideshow (“I have 97 images for a 45 minute talk, cut back from over 200”), was firmly grounded in material. He stands alongside what he teaches: like the picture of him that seemed to always accompany his faculty page (reproduced above)…may he always stand next to what he is teaching us about.

Back to his writing. There are probably better examples than what follows, but the way that he concludes The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice will always loom large for me…the experience that I had reading this after working patiently (but not laboriously!) through the book is indelible. I remember where I was when I read it (in a park in Chicago, pushing a stroller, somehow balancing the rather clumsily large paperback copy of the book on the handle….facing comprehensive exams in a matter of months….if I kept moving, the baby would keep sleeping….it was late Fall, so the park and city were beautiful, crisp, and vivid..an indelible image):

R. K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (1993), 247.

Look at those footnote numbers, by the way! This is a new way to think about creation. The Egyptians’ idea, yes, but accurately (it seems) recaptured by the scholar, brought up from the past and made present in a convincing way. But the key is recaptured. George Steiner spoke about the tragedy of translation grotesquely disfiguring the precious flower that it drew up from the depths of the sea. While it is the nature of scholarly work that ideas are refined, corrected, overturned, and Ritner’s work is there, for us now, able to be engaged in that way, the flower nevertheless seems intact. May it always represent the state of the art of scholarly knowledge…but if it doesn’t (and all for the better if that must be the case), what will remain is more than an out of date idea: here, the flower freshly plucked, in the act of argument and articulation, is frozen in expression, ever keeps its color, “Pollen der blühenden Gottheit” (Duino Elegy no 2) Rilke encountered in the ruined art of Ancient Egypt…this may be left behind one day, but it will never become grotesque.

Am I exaggerating? Ritner’s writing, when honing in on a big idea, is a fascinating, maybe raucous, mosaic of his own words, quotations of Egyptian texts, and of ideas canonically thought by Egyptology. These are the kinds of ideas that lead to feelings of exhilaration, and represent the best part about studying something ancient that needs recovery and reanimation. But for me, I will not be able to separate these ideas from the experience of a realization: when, because of the labor of this scholar and author, and the patience he had in leading me through his text, I was able to conceive of something essential about this ancient culture that had its own inherent reproducability, given an essential stamp by its author, but also freed from his text to be brought to bear on new texts, images, or ideas: as in the above extract, and from his wider argument, about the different way that nature, causality, and divinity are interrelated in the Egyptian world view. Once you see it in Ritner’s text (or heard it in class, or in a lecture, or slideshow), you see it everywhere. The idea does its own work, it has its own energy. It makes you want to look for more. The energy becomes a part of you.

We are fortunate that Ritner wrote so much (though it feels like he did not write enough, and did not live up to his true potential!), that he made himself literally into millions, as the Egyptians said about the god/cosmic force Heka, of which Ritner was its most eloquent and influential re-imaginer. Of course, not all of it was Copernican in its implications: the virtue of the scholar was that he applied the same methodological rigor, finessed readings, Textgefühl, and synthesizing ability to a scattering of minor inscriptions from a temple, or an amulet, or a historical quibble….but able to jump from an object of everyday religious life to an insight about the matrix of (a) human life (back then). He could also be extremely polemical and unkind to some. I wish it would have been different. I hope that is not all that he is remembered for, but this is an important part of him. I constantly worry that my passion does not find its match in expression or in stones patiently chiseled, matched, and laid. But I never stop being grateful for the passion. I am glad that his passion found its match, but I don’t want to excuse the offense that he caused. It has taken the shape that it will be, and its faults will stay there alongside the rest of it: jw=f pw (meaning “It goes,” the words Egyptian scribes used to indicate a scroll had been copied its full extent). I wish there was a way to make up for his failings as there is to carry on his work and inspiration.

That is the impact that his scholarship has had on me and on many others, but I also had the fortune of being one of his students and advisees. In text classes, it will be difficult to forget what it was like walking alongside him as he uncovered aboriginal meaning hidden in plain sight, like Egyptian words and ideas garbled by Greek or Hebrew tongues, or meanings of hieroglyphs deliberately obfuscated. I won’t forget his ability to translate Coptic on the fly into Demotic or Middle Egyptian. It was showboating at a rarified level. I would stay up so late sometimes preparing texts for class. I know I am supposed to say that such assumed behavior is unhealthy and verges on toxicity, but it was a thrill. Also, I was probably reading Ugaritic on alternate late nights at the same time. I can only be honest and speak from my experience. I miss those days. Ritner is my model for how to engage in Egyptian philology (like my other advisor, Dennis Pardee, for Northwest Semitic). It bears fruit in my everyday work as a philologist. Beyond the technique and the model for impossible emulation, I am grateful how anchored my education in Egyptian, through Robert Ritner, is to a specific place: tables, shelves, books in the Research Archives of the Oriental Institute. I will never stop appreciating his institutional enthusiasm for the OI, and will count myself fortunate if I can image of that kind of groundedness in place in whatever configuration my professional life awaits.

Teachers mean so much. Like parents, you are supposed to outlast your teachers, and although that is the natural way, and preferable, it is still painful. It should not have happened this way, but jw=f pw. He should have been around far longer, like his teacher Klaus Baer, whose own untimely death you frequently felt in Ritner’s classes: a chain of loss. He is one of many teachers that have left an indelible mark on my soul throughout my life, and one of several from Chicago I cannot thank enough. May we always try to live up to our teachers!

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